Authorship & Authority
When you consider the quality of your sources, you should also consider the authorship and authority of your sources. Who wrote the material? Is that person or organization credible? The following interaction will provide you with more details on authorship and authority to help you make good decisions about your sources.
Often, books and scholarly journals will have a short biography of the author, outlining her or his credentials: education, publications, and experience in the field.
Look the biography over. Does the material there seem to suggest this writer has in-depth knowledge on the topic? What educational credentials does the writer have? If the writer is a trained economist but is writing on scientific matters, you need to keep that in mind as you look at her or his arguments. If the writer is associated with a specific conservative or liberal think tank, be aware that the arguments presented will probably reflect the ideology of that organization.
An ideological agenda does not mean that you have to avoid material. You simply need to read it with an awareness that the writer is writing from a specific point of view.
Minimal qualifications or qualifications that seem unrelated to the topic are a warning sign to you that you might want to reconsider using the material.
If no biography is attached to the work, an advanced search on Google or another search engine can be very helpful. You might also check hard copy or online sources such as Contemporary Authors, Book Review Index, or Biography index.
Many authors also have their own websites, listing information about their educational background, current and past research, and experience.
If you can find no or little information about a writer, be careful about using her or his material. You may want to consider replacing it altogether with a different source where the credentials of the writer are more readily available.
While you want to be careful of sources without authors, that doesn’t mean you can’t use them. Often, websites won’t list an author. In that case, you need to evaluate the sponsoring organization. Look for the following information:
- Does the home page offer information about the organization?
- Is there a mission statement?
- Does the site offer any indication that the material on the webpage has been reviewed or checked by experts, often called a “peer-review process”?
- Does the site provide a link with an address, phone, and email?
Yes — If you find only some of the points from the bulleted list, try filling in the blanks with an internet search on the organization. Often, an encyclopedia — online or hard copy — provides background information on an organization. Try to find out a little bit about who funds it, who its audience is, and what its objectives are.
Again, discovering that an organization has specific ideological ties does not mean that you need to discard the material you have found there. You simply need to use it carefully and balance it with material from other sources.
No — If the answer to all of the bulleted questions is “no,” be careful!
A site that provides no information about its sponsors is a site that you should avoid using for your paper.
If no one is willing to put her or his name on the site and accept responsibility for the information, do you think you should trust that information for your research? Definitely not.